It looks like the 20th MLS team will be Manchester City FC. The name will be changed, of course it will. MLS plus ManCity -- plenty of expensive brainpower involved in that discussion, one would think -- have decided that the new club is to be New York City FC. Which is fine. Except for one thing. You will not win any prizes for working out what’s wrong with it, and I shall return to the matter later in this column.
For the rest, how can MLS resist an association with one of the world’s top clubs, certainly one of the richest. The money part comes from ManCity’s owner, Sheikh Mansour from Abu Dhabi. Which is one of the Emirates that compose the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Oil money. The Abu Dhabi group took over ManCity in 2008, since when the club has rarely been out of the headlines, mostly because of the huge amounts of money Sheikh Mansour has been spending on it, and much less frequently, because the club has had success on the field. Two successes, actually: Winners of the FA Cup in 2011, and the Premier League in 2012.
Failure to repeat last season’s Premier League triumph has cost coach Roberto Mancini his job, and the club is currently touring the USA under former assistant coach Brian Kidd.
That is, not to mince words, a rather mixed record. But one can say this about ManCity: It does not look like your typical English club. The ownership is foreign, and two of the top executives are Spanish. Not only that, they have both spent serious time working with Barcelona. Ferran Soriano, who is ManCity’s CEO, spent five years (2003-08) as vice-president and general manager of Barcelona, while Txiki Begiristain was Barca’s Director of Soccer from 2003-10.
It was Soriano who spoke at the New York press conference, from a platform that included New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, MLS Commissioner Don Garber, and representatives from the New York Yankees. Soriano made a point of stressing, repeatedly, that NYCFC would play not only winning soccer, but “beautiful” soccer too. OK -- one can quibble -- will this be Barca’s version, or ManCity’s version of beautiful soccer? There is an obvious difference. But the fact that a commitment to playing stylish soccer was emphasized is unusual -- talk of the aesthetic, even the artistic, value of the soccer usually gets buried among the boasts about winning everything that fill this type of club announcement.
Soriano also offered sensible and sensitive comments about what looks like being the club’s thorniest problem: Finding somewhere to play. His message was that the club needs need more than a stadium, it needs a permanent home: “We're not looking for a place to play. We're looking for a home. So we need the local community to embrace us, to be our family and we're taking it from there. We want to listen to everybody.”
The listening must include hearing the views of local residents -- what Mayor Bloomberg referred to as “serious community investment.” MLS has already done a lot of work trying to find a suitable stadium site, and there has been a lot of publicity for the plans it has drawn up for an arena to be built in Queens, within Flushing Meadows park. A plan that has the backing of Bloomberg.
But this plan has aroused noisy opposition. Inevitably. Taking away a chunk of New York’s ultra-valuable parkland and turning it over to a commercially operated stadium is not going to be an easy sell. For a start, think of it this way: No one would dream of building a stadium in New York’s Central Park ... but that’s Manhattan, where the rich and powerful live. But it’s OK to make exactly that move out in Queens, among much less wealthy and fashionable communities. A snub for lowly Queens, then.
Maybe Soriano realizes this, maybe he’s already been listening to the Yankees -- who do indeed have experience of exactly this problem (the new Yankee Stadium was built on some 24 acres of public parkland). The Yankees eventually won that battle, but it went on for years. The new stadium opened in 2009, but the parkland replacement areas, which the Yankees agreed to provide, had to wait until 2012. These new areas include, just across the street from Yankee Stadium, a narrow soccer field.
Whatever, it did seem to me that the general euphoria surrounding the NYCFC announcement did not include many mentions of the Flushing Meadow site plans. There were several references to studying “alternative sites.” Hence Soriano: “We know that the league and the city have been working on this potential stadium [in Queens]. We'll continue these discussions and we will look at other options.”
Sidetracking slightly, another name that did not come up during the ManCity-Yankees-MLS-NYCFC fest was that of the Cosmos. The reborn club is busy signing players (to start play this August in the NASL) and is apparently working on plans to build a stadium -- in Queens, near the Belmont race track. But what now happens to the Cosmos frequently announced plans to join MLS as the 20th team, the second New York team, when that option has been snatched away by NYCFC? In fact, what now happens to the Cosmos?
That the plight of the Cosmos should not be allowed to dampen the NYCFC enthusiasm is understandable. But it was odd that the MLS plans for a Queens stadium got so little attention. It becomes suspiciously odd when you realize that no one is mentioning one of the key reasons why that particular site in Queens is attractive: That it is right next to areas of Queens that are home to huge soccer-loving Latino communities. There are those -- I am one of them -- who feel that a Latino-flavored New York team would be the best path for this new franchise, and for MLS, to take. There are others who feel, for whatever reason, that such a strategy would be a mistake.
It is extremely unlikely, then, that NYCFC will have its home ready for the scheduled start of play in 2015. So maybe the team plays that season in Yankee Stadium? Not an easy fit -- the conflict of schedules causes problems, and there seems to be still a feeling among baseball people that soccer games -- or even just one game -- will play havoc with baseball fields.
Back in 1976, when the Cosmos did play a season in the old Yankee Stadium, I recall arriving for a game there one July evening, to find the gates locked, with groups of fans hanging about on the sidewalks. The Yankees had decided, at the last minute, to call the game off -- they had the right to do that -- fearing that rainy weather plus a soccer game would rip up their field. A few years earlier, when several baseball stadiums were in use by the fledgling North American Soccer League, the term “soccer divot” entered the baseball vocabulary, a convenient excuse for any fielding errors.
We can assume that the stadium problems - finding the right site, satisfying the local community, mastering the Byzantine negotiations with New York politicians - are all solvable. If only because similar problems have been worked out in this city before.
A totally new problem - new, because it is specific to soccer - is now involved, and it’s not at all clear how this one will be resolved. This is the soccer part. Soriano’s promised “beautiful soccer.”
If this were simply a case of an English team running an MLS franchise, you could be totally sure there would be no beautiful game, and equally sure that the enterprise would end, probably quite quickly, in abject failure (exactly as the first attempt, entirely Brit-controlled, to re-launch the Cosmos ran aground in 2011 after only one year of mismanagement).
But the ManCity I have briefly profiled above has the look and the sound and the feel of something different. It has made, quickly, a significant move in appointing Claudio Reyna as its director of soccer. Reyna’s background as someone who grew up and learned his soccer in and around New York, and who also had a spell at ManCity, looks almost too good to be true. But it gets better, for Reyna’s Latino background suggests that ManCity have given serious thought to that key aspect of the New York soccer scene.
ManCity has also been rather quietly running -- for several years now -- City Soccer in the Community, a social program for disadvantaged kids in New York and several other American cities.
Asked about the possibility that ManCity might, so to speak, simply kidnap any talented young American boys it discovers here and whisk them off to England, Soriano was quick to deny any such intentions and did seem to be aware of the sensitivities involved.
The undeniable tendency of foreign clubs -- particularly the English ones -- to treat American soccer as an undeveloped project where ignorance and naivete reign, is something that MLS has to deal with. And I’m not sure that MLS is dealing with it too well.
The days when America’s soccer leaders felt the need to play a sycophantic role on the world stage should by now have been forgotten. There is a growing American presence in the sport, both on the field and at the top organizational levels. But MLS still occasionally behaves as though it is a forelock-tugging
Back to New York City FC, heralded as New York’s second MLS club, ready to create an instant soccer rivalry with the Red Bulls, who live across the Hudson River in New Jersey. But that name, that “FC,” announces not a soccer club, but a Football Club.
Now the last time I checked -- which was this morning, this is New York we’re dealing with, and you never know -- there were already two long-established and highly successful local football clubs: The New York Giants, and the New York Jets. They belong to a body known as the National Football League. There are no soccer clubs operating within the NFL.
What then is Major League Soccer doing when it allows its clubs to use those FC letters? It already has four FC clubs. It should be telling those clubs to switch to an SC designation, not adding a fifth football club.
There is evidently an awareness by both MLS and ManCity that this is a slippery area, with neither side wanting to claim the responsibility. Soriano told me that the FC designation was not ManCity’s idea, and spoke of “A collective effort.” MLS Commissioner Don Garber was equally vague, but said that he felt the FC tag “satisfied” ManCity.
Soriano deflected further questions with the point that MLS already has other clubs using FC. Indeed it does, so what’s the big deal?
Well, the big deal here is the strength, the authority and the credibility of MLS. Which includes the word soccer in its title, not football. Does MLS think that if it allows enough clubs to call themselves FCs, then the NFL will cave in and change its name? If it doesn’t believe that, then why is it propagating the use of a term that is already embedded in the American vocabulary as the name for a different sport? Surely it cannot be that MLS is spoiling for a copyright battle with the NFL?
At its worst, this willingness on the part of Garber and MLS to allow its member clubs to use titles signifying another sport is a sign of weakness, a sign that the days of cultural cringe before things English are not yet over. We see it most obviously in the pathetic belief of American TV companies that a British accent somehow confers authenticity on a soccer telecast.
But why on earth would MLS, which should be the leader in creating a truly American voice for the sport, choose to ignore American word usage and opt for the word football ... simply because that’s the word the English use?
P.S. This being soccer, there is a typically perverse angle to the soccer vs football controversy. Soccer is not, as so many seem to believe, an American word. Its etymology is totally English.